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A shaken Israel prepares for elections

Surveys indicate that right-of-center parties, riding a belligerent mood over fighting with Hamas in Gaza, will together outpoll Kadima and other left-wing parties by about 10 seats.

February 10, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israelis trudged to the polls today to elect a new government for the fifth time in 10 years, following a campaign mired in voter apathy, confusion and disillusionment with the country's politicians.

Although compelling issues are at stake, including how to deal with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria and the threat of a nuclear Iran, candidates for prime minister avoided face-to-face debate and ran negative campaigns besmirching one another's credibility.

Campaign rallies drew middling crowds and TV audiences ignored political ads. Final polls published Friday indicated that as many as one-fourth of the 5.3 million eligible voters were undecided. With cold rain falling in much of Israel, candidates feared that many of them would stay home.

"In these elections, there is no one leader or candidate of such great stature whom I can point to with conviction and say, 'Now that's the one I believe in; this is the one who shall lead us,' " said Rami Shalom, a 42-year-old recycling company manager who cast his ballot as soon as his polling station in a Jerusalem suburb opened.

He said his vote for the conservative Likud Party was "something of a default choice."

Each voter was casting a single ballot, choosing among 33 parties offering candidates for the 120-seat parliament.

Because no party ever achieves a majority, the one with the most votes and the most support among the other parties in parliament gets the first chance to assemble a ruling coalition. If it succeeds, that party's leader becomes prime minister for a four-year term.

The final voter surveys gave former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition Likud Party a two- or three-seat lead over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party.

The surveys indicated that Likud and other right-of-center parties, riding a belligerent mood in Israel over recent fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, would together outpoll Kadima and parties to its left by about 10 seats.

But Netanyahu's lead over Livni was shrinking amid a surge of support for far-right candidate Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Is Our Home party, which advocates taking away citizenship rights from Israeli Arabs deemed disloyal to the Jewish state.

With the race too close to call, Netanyahu spent the last week pleading with supporters of Lieberman's party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to abandon their loyalties and give him an electoral mandate to lead a coalition that would include them.

Livni implored supporters of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's left-leaning Labor Party and the leftist Meretz party to move to the center and vote for her to keep right-wing forces from taking power.

The result was a blurring of Israel's traditionally sharp ideological divisions. Adding to the confusion was a proliferation of smaller contenders, including a coalition advocating better benefits for Holocaust survivors and the legalization of marijuana.

"The Israeli citizens will vote under duress . . . bewildered by a downpour of media spins," columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. "They will decide . . . not on the basis of conviction that anyone is a real leader, but on the basis of strategic calculations proposed to them."

Israel's leading parties have sharp differences over the Palestinian conflict that could have turned the campaign into a referendum on an issue of immediate concern to the Obama administration.

Likud wants peace efforts to focus on building the Palestinian economy, not, as Kadima proposes, on creating an independent state. Labor favors a more comprehensive, regional approach to peace, including negotiations with Syria.

But these distinctions were barely discussed. Instead, voters were bombarded with Likud ads belittling Livni as "not up to the job" and Kadima rebuttals that Netanyahu "cannot be trusted."

"The country's burning issues weren't properly addressed," President Shimon Peres, whose largely ceremonial job is not at stake, said Monday on Israel Radio.

The election was called more than a year ahead of schedule because Ehud Olmert of Kadima, the outgoing prime minister, was forced to resign over corruption scandals.

With surveys showing that 90% of the voters think the political system is tainted by corruption, Livni had hoped to make personal integrity a major issue. Unlike Barak and Netanyahu, she has never been the target of a police investigation for alleged corruption.

But Israel's military assault on Gaza, following years of rocket fire from the territory, made security a far bigger concern to voters. A fraud investigation against Lieberman, in which his daughter, his lawyer and five other confidants were detained last month, did not inhibit his rise in the polls.

Skirmishes in Gaza continued Monday, despite an informal cease-fire. A Palestinian fighter died in a clash with Israeli troops, and Israeli aircraft attacked two militant positions, retaliating for rocket fire from the territory on Sunday.


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